By all media accounts, gold medalist swimmer Missy Franklin is a sweetheart, someone who seems genuinely happy to be at the Olympics and shows it with a wide smile plastered on her face. So why did Sally Jenkins, writing for the Washington Post, say a "a mean girl took possession of" Franklin in the pool? Because Franklin got gold.
In the column Jenkins attempts to compare Franklin's fierceness in the pool to her nice-teenage-girl-next-door demeanor. Franklin is young, yes, but look what she can do, is the gist:
For a lap and a half, you wondered if Franklin might prove just a little too tender to handle all the expectations. She’s not only 17, she’s a particularly young-seeming version of it, palpably naive and open-faced. This was her first Olympic gold medal attempt in a grueling program of seven planned events — and on top of that, she had had to swim a semifinal heat in the 200 freestyle less than 15 minutes earlier. But with about 25 meters to go in the backstroke, a mean girl took possession of her.
"Mean girl" implies that what Franklin did was catty, and somehow unbecoming. It is truly hard to imagine Michael Phelps' or Ryan Lochte's desire for victory being described in this manner.
But Jenkins' comment strikes a familiar cord, a dissonance between the way female and male athletes get talked about. Yesterday, Slate took on what they referred to as "The Problem with NBC's Paternalistic Coverage of Gymnastics 'Divas,'" focusing specifically NBC's segment about the "temperamental" Russians. And let's not forget the attention paid to Jordyn Wieber's tears after the gymnast learned she wouldn't be a contender in the all-around competition. At Jezebel, Erin Gloria Ryan wrote:
America loves a crying gymnast because a crying gymnast cries because she's beaten someone, or lost to someone, another girl who is probably also crying. They're the end result of a female-female rivalry — who doesn't love a good catfight? — and the media loves to manufacture catfights even where they don't necessarily exist.
Jenkins' comment plays directly into what Ryan describes. She prefaces her "mean girl" statement by describing silver medalist Emily Seebohm's "sobbing." She implies that by fighting her way into first place, Franklin somehow displayed her hidden bitch. But Franklin didn't have to turn into a backstabbing Regina George to power through those last 25 meters of her 100-meter backstroke race. She just did what Olympians are supposed to do: She won.